A recent story in The Boston Globe highlights a worship controversy at Gordon College surrounding changes introduced by Bil Mooney-McCoy, the college’s new director of Christian life and worship. Specifically, the controversy revolved around the cultural style of worship during mandatory chapel services. Mooney-McCoy would often lead chapel services in a style widespread among African-American churches—spontaneous, demonstrative, often encouraging the congregants to express their worship through dance, using gospel songs and hymns. After these changes were introduced, many students began to express their discomfort and disapproval. Via social media and student surveys, some said that chapel felt to them more like performance than true worship; others said that the worship leader was hogging the limelight and drawing attention to himself. In response, students who welcomed the change saw these criticisms as racially motivated, coming from those who were opposed to the inclusion of minorities.
Since the initial dustup, however, the article reports that students who found the new worship style dissatisfactory went down from 30% to 5%. New, helpful conversations on white privilege and being part of a diverse community have started. Administrators are optimistic that the college community has grown in its awareness of reconciliation as a result.
I found these paragraphs in the article helpful for further thought:
Diversity is an essential part of being a Christian, Jukanovich [associate vice president for student development and Mooney-McCoy’s supervisor] said. “We’re not who we’re fully created to be unless we know other members of God’s kingdom,” she said.
Both she and Mooney-McCoy say it is important for students in a multicultural environment to have moments of shared discomfort in which experiences stretch students beyond their comfort zones.
“If you’re in a multicultural environment, there will be a moment when you feel at home, and then there will be a moment where you feel like, ‘Where am I?’ ” he said. “It can’t be that one group always feels not at home and one group feels completely at home.”
There is a reason that many church conflicts revolve around worship styles, and it is cultural. Each of us relates to God within our own respective cultures, utilizing the forms found within our own cultural milieu. This is necessarily the case because we are enfleshed beings who live within the time and space into which we were born and raised, and because we cannot relate to or think of God apart from our own culturally conditioned points of view. When another culture comes along with its own forms of worship, their ways of relating to God seem alien to us, even hereto-orthodox.
Western theology has traditionally sought to negate this cultural conditioned nature of our knowledge, including our knowledge of God, by appealing to a philosophical idealism that can be traced to Descartes and even all the way back to Plato. Some have noted that this tendency towards the abstract has yielded a gnostic tendency among contemporary evangelicals—see, for example, Mark Noll. How this practically translates to worship is that one culture’s cultural forms utilized for worship becomes normative, because these forms become enshrined in the temple (the tomb?) of the ideal. Every other culture’s forms of worship then are measured against that norm, and, more likely than not, found wanting. Couple this idealism with a dominant position in society, and it becomes a conversation-stopper. The dominant culture enjoys the power and the privilege of having the ability to invalidate the subdominant culture’s forms of worship, while denying that their own forms of worship are also culturally conditioned. In other words, “We think your culture’s way of worship is inferior to our culture’s way of worship, because our way is the norm, and your way is culturally conditioned. And, besides, we can tune this conversation out if we want to.”
What happened at Gordon College opens the window for the church at large onto this underlying tension between dominant and subdominant cultures found within it. The discomfort in the process of becoming a diverse, reconciled community is great—how can one measure the cost of feeling that you are losing your very self, the only way that you and your community have ever related to God?—but a cost that needs to be paid if the gospel is to be lived out by the church. The subdominant groups, however, have a hard time convincing the dominant groups to pay the price with them.
But the eventual payoff is much greater than the cost. We become more than ourselves—our cultural selves begin to expand and encompass the good cultural gifts of our brothers and sisters in Christ, and our relationship to the God who created the various cultures deepens and enriches. We find new joys and new dimensions to our spirituality, a wider vista to the bigness of God than we had realized. And, instead of a church that is fractious and splintered into countless special interest groups and tribes, which the world can easily discount, we begin to be a more unified community that is humbly growing and learning from our differences, where kingdom reconciliation is a reality, not a slogan.
When, as a seminary student many years ago, I first made the move from being a youth pastor in a Korean-American church to an urban African-American church, the first six months felt like a honeymoon. I was delighted that worship was so celebratory. Each church service was a party dedicated to the goodness of God. The prevailing mood was joy, even at funerals—they are called home-going services in the Black church. And it was so different from the Korean spirituality, my own cultural heritage, which too was emotional (unlike in the White church, which tends towards the cerebral), but emphasized tears over laughter—there is an “agonizing” nature to the Korean spiritual fervor. I found the joyous worship in the Black church utterly refreshing and enlarging to my spirituality.
However, after six months, I fell into a deep doubt over what a Korean was doing in an African-American church—a period of deep discomfort and disorientation over my place in this new world. I might very well have left the Black church then had not the people of the church not come alongside of me, prayed with me, embraced me, and welcomed me in. I am amazed that I received such grace and generosity; they were the reason I achieved an equilibrium, and I ended up staying on for 7 more years.
I had been out of the Korean church for many years, church planting in Philadelphia, when I was invited to speak at a Korean youth group retreat. It was a sort of homecoming. I had forgotten how ingrained to my inner being was the uniquely Korean spirituality of agonizing, shout-out-loud, tearful prayers and entreaties to God. Surrounded by middle and high schoolers crying their prayers out to God, I suddenly, and unexpectedly, felt at home.
The different cultures that I have been blessed to be a part of have each made a deep imprint on my spirituality. I feel that with each encounter I am being stretched, my boundaries expanding, to become more than myself. The discomfort and the disorientation are real, and I find that I want to quickly retreat to the safety of the old and familiar, but in many ways, I’ve come too far already for that. I eagerly anticipate this journey to continue.
I am not hopeful for myself alone. Each culture contains a rich vein of spiritual treasures from God for the sake of the church’s edification, and in this new world of diversity and globalization, the opportunities to tap these veins are abounding, much more so than in the ages past. May the church of Christ be found willing to pay the cost for the sake of gaining more of this great gospel treasure.